The Four Times NSA Surveillance Programs Stopped An Attack

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June 19, 2013 3:44 AM EST

Since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the government’s surveillance programs have helped thwart a terrorist attack in over 50 instances, according to Gen. Keith Alexander, director of the National Security Agency. The intelligence community has decided to disclose four of these cases.

Speaking at a House Intelligence Committee hearing Tuesday, top intelligence community officials including Gen. Alexander defended NSA’s surveillance of phone records and internet communications, which have come under fire as a breach of Americans’ civil liberties. The five witnesses repeatedly told the committee that robust protections were in place to protect citizens’ privacy. Perhaps the most effective defense of the programs, however, is proof that they work.

The leaks of classified documents revealed the existence of two surveillance programs, which the government operates under authority under Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act and Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act, the former green lighting the collection of Americans’ phone records and the latter authorizing foreign surveillance.

To prove the necessity of these programs, Sean Joyce, deputy director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, described the four of the instances in which, under authority by either Section 215 or Section 702, thwarted an attack. These plots are not all new revelations, which is probably why intelligence officials chose them as examples. The examples show a process wherein the NSA programs detect a suspicious individual within the U.S. and the FBI then moves to identify and investigate that person.

The first is the case of Najibullah Zazi, who confessed to plotting to bomb the New York City subway system in 2009. Joyce confirmed that NSA’s internet surveillance program led officials to a suspect in Colorado who turned out to be Zazi. The FBI took the necessary legal steps to identify him and ultimately capture him, in concert with authorities in New York. Under Section 215 authority, Joyce said, NSA was also able to nail down a “previously unknown number of one of the co-conspirators.”

“Without the 702 tool, we would not have identified Najibullah Zazi,”  Joyce said later in the hearing.

A second instance includes a thwarted plot to bomb the New York Stock Exchange. Under Section 702 authority, NSA monitored a known extremist in Yemen, who was communicating with a man in Kansas City, Mo. This information led the FBI to Khalid Ouazzani, his co-conspirators and ultimately the plot to bomb the New York Stock Exchange.  

The third instance cited by Joyce was the case of David Headley, an American in Chicago who had aided in carrying out the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks. The FBI had received a tip about his involvement in the attacks when NSA’s 702 surveillance also identified Headley as involved in a plot to bomb a Danish newspaper office that had published cartoons of the Prophet Mohamed considered offensive by some Muslims. “Headley later confessed to personally conducting surveillance of the Danish newspaper office,” Joyce said.

In the final case, Joyce testified that data collection under Section 215 helped uncover terrorist activity that the FBI had been unable to detect. In 2007, the FBI closed an investigation it had launched shortly after Sept. 11 after not finding any connection to terrorist activity. Years later, under its Section 215-sanctioned metadata collection program, NSA identified a number in San Diego, Calif., that was in contact with a known terrorist overseas. NSA’s discovery allowed the FBI to reopen the investigation and disrupt the terrorist activity. Joyce later confirmed that the activity involved providing financial support to a designated terrorist group overseas.

In addition to those four cases, Alexander said the intelligence community is collecting information on “over 50 cases that are classified and will remain classified” in which the surveillance programs helped to thwart an attack. Alexander said that information would be shared with the House and Senate intelligence committees.

“The foreign intelligence programs that we are talking about is the best counterterrorism tools that we have to go after these guys,” Alexander said after Joyce recalled the four examples. “We can’t lose those capabilities.”

Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and a vocal defender of these programs, echoed these sentiments in his opening remarks Tuesday. Without these programs, he said according to prepared remarks, “I fear we will return to the position we were in prior to the attacks of September 11, 2001.  And that should be unacceptable to all of us.” 

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